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Can Self-Compassion Improve Your Health?

Kelsey Tyler

When you’re going through something difficult, practicing self-compassion can help improve your physical and mental wellbeing. If this idea sounds a tad touchy-feely, that’s probably because it is. But that doesn’t make it any less valid. The importance of self-compassion, particularly for those facing health issues, is well-supported by psychology research. 

“Some people really need self-compassion to help them cope with life challenges — especially if you’re talking about people with medical conditions,” says Kristin Neff, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the leading self-compassion researcher. “Cancer. Chronic pain. Diabetes. Self-compassion is a real, important source of resilience.”

Many of us instinctively show compassion when other people are struggling, but we don’t act the same way toward ourselves when we’re the ones having a hard time. Practicing self-compassion doesn’t merely entail being kind to yourself. It also requires acknowledging your pain or suffering without judgment; extending warmth, patience and comfort to yourself as you figure out how to cope with difficult circumstances; and recognizing that you aren’t suffering alone, even if you feel isolated and frustrated, because everyone faces problems and setbacks. 

“The really important common humanity piece — remembering that everyone struggles, it’s not just me,” Neff says, “that’s what differentiates self-compassion from self-pity.”

Being kind about being human

Displaying self-compassion is one of those universally good-for-you habits, partly because it appears to help people stick to other good-for-you habits. Self-compassionate people, research shows, are more likely to eat well, exercise regularly, get the recommended amount of sleep and keep their stress under control. 

“Engaging in these healthy behaviors can often be a challenge and lead to occasional lapses or failures,” says study author Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield. “If people respond to these failures with self-criticism, the negative mood that follows can make it even harder to get back on track. But if you respond to these lapses with self-compassion, being kind and realizing that having lapses is part of being human, and not becoming too over-identified with the negative feelings from this lapse, this can give you the positive mood boost to make it easier to stay focused on your health goal.”

Making an effort to cut yourself some slack, however, appears to be especially important for people with chronic illness. 

“[That’s] because, over time, there is social stigma and shame associated with being unable to do some things that are expected of us,” says self-compassion researcher Christopher Germer, a clinical psychologist and professor at Harvard Medical School. “It gives us self-respect and self-confidence through inner kindness when we suffer or fail.” 

Studies back up the importance of self-compassion for people with chronic illness. In one study, for example, higher levels of self-compassion corresponded to less depression, anxiety and shame among people with epilepsy. In another study, researchers offered self-compassion training to people with diabetes. Among those who did the training, 66 percent saw meaningful reductions in their A1C levels (an indicator of blood sugar), compared to 29 percent of those who skipped it.  

“One possible interpretation is that learning to self-soothe and be kind to oneself, as opposed to being harshly self-critical when experiencing stress or difficult emotions, may be linked to improvements in stress responses, ultimately measurable in A1C,” says Anna Friis, a health psychologist and self-compassion researcher in New Zealand who led the diabetes study. 

Talking to healthcare providers

If you’re struggling with a chronic condition, telling a therapist about your feelings of self-frustration may help you become more self-compassionate, especially if your therapist then emphasizes that failure and suffering are universal parts of the human experience.

“Psychotherapists are trained for precisely this conversation,” Germer points out. Medical doctors, on the other hand, may be more accustomed to advising about diet, exercise and medication adherence, and not be able to provide as much useful feedback on self-compassion.

“It’s not part of the standard medical education, so they may or may not be aware of this resource,” Neff says. That said, if a medical doctor is the provider who’s available to you, asking them for guidance is still worth a try.

How to be more self-compassionate

Free resources do exist that may help bolster your self-compassion, including a workbook authored by Neff and Germer, as well as a test to determine where you lie on a self-compassion scale developed by Neff. They might not be the final word on your own internal state, but as Neff puts it, “That’s often a nice way for people to start to say, ‘Well, what do I need to work on?’”

Here are five ways to increase self-compassion:

Embody kindness. Be as understanding of yourself as you’d be to a friend in similar circumstances.

“Have the intention to be kinder to yourself, rather than the usual unholy trinity of self-criticism, isolation and rumination when things go wrong,” Germer says. 

Analyze your inner voice. Acknowledging your self-attitude may motivate you to act differently.

“When they think, ‘Wow, if I said what I say to myself to my friend, that wouldn’t work at all,’ they’re surprised, and you can see it,” Neff says.

Ask yourself what you need. Have you ever asked someone who’s having a tough time what you can do to help? Extend the same generosity to yourself.

“Ask, ‘What do I most need in this moment in order to support myself?’” says Friis. “Perhaps giving yourself permission to take a break, to know that you are not alone in finding things difficult. Perhaps reaching out to a kind friend or support group or planning an activity that is nurturing and helpful.”

Soothe yourself through touch. If a friend was in your shoes, you might give her a supportive hug. Offer yourself the same comfort: Embracing yourself or placing your hand over your heart may help you feel safe and supported.

“Our body responds to warm, caring touch — it’s a signal of care,” says Neff.

Write yourself a letter. Committing your words to paper may have longer-lasting effects than having fleeting thoughts.

“Think about a friend who might be struggling with the same issue you are and imagine what you would tell them,” says Sirois. “If you were to read this supportive, compassionate response that you would give a good friend to yourself, that is a step toward practicing self-compassion.”

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